In Windy City, Dropouts Drift In

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People here call Jack Wuest many things.
“Passionate advocate.”
“Hope merchant.”
“A real a—hole.”

That last one comes from Wuest, projecting what some people might say about him. No one goes that far for print, but people who work with Chicago’s dropouts say no one has been pushier for the cause than this 57-year-old lifelong youth worker.

Because of that pushing, Chicago stands as a national leader in funding programs for dropouts and other at-risk youth from a pot of money that has traditionally been hard to reach: local education. While programs for dropouts have long been supported by youth employment and training money, often from the U.S. Department of Labor, Wuest convinced the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to fund a system of alternative schools run by nonprofits.

Not everyone is happy about it. To some observers, the growth of alternative schools in Chicago and elsewhere has let public schools dump their least desirable students – mostly poor and black – through expulsions. One former board member of the nonprofit that gets the CPS money calls the agreement “a trap.”

Everyone agrees, however, that the arrangement was innovative. “He [Wuest] built structures, then he brought those structures into the main line of public education,” says Fred Hess, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Urban School Policy and a former consultant to CPS. “There aren’t a lot of stories about people who do that.”

This is one of them.

Reports and Rallies

The lanky Wuest is found clad in shorts in his cluttered, weather-beaten loft office in the Ravenswood section of Chicago. The Chicago native lives in the city with his wife, with whom he raised three children (now grown).

Wuest majored in English at Xavier University in Cincinnati, but soon after graduation began a career in youth work: He served as a caseworker in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) from 1971 to 1973, handling a caseload of 50 youths at a time. In his final year there he launched the Alternative Schools Network (ASN) with several youth advocates as part of his state job, before spinning it off as a nonprofit that today employs a staff of 28.

The ASN runs numerous programs on behalf of its member organizations, which are nonprofits that run child care and after-school programs, grade schools, high schools, youth agencies (such as Jobs for Youth/Chicago) and adult learning centers. About half of ASN’s $8 million annual budget comes from the DCFS and one-quarter comes from the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, Wuest says.

What ASN is publicly known for, however, is its dogged push for money and other resources to help disadvantaged youth.
The network commissions studies – most through the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Massachusetts – that illustrate the struggles of youth who do not finish high school. Its recent reports have pegged the number of 16- to 24-year-olds who are neither in school nor working at 100,000 in Chicago and 5.5 million nationally.

ASN uses the reports to build government and public support for helping those youth. One key pitch is this finding: For each high school graduate, the benefits to taxpayers over that youth’s lifetime – measured by such things as higher taxable earnings and lower medical and social welfare costs – add up to $312,000.

To get out the message, Wuest and ASN lobby lawmakers, testify at public hearings (including those conducted by congressional committees), hold news conferences and stage rallies. “Demonstrations are always fun – the kids love ’em,” Wuest says. “Kids love to do something rather than sitting around talking.”

Wuest figures he’s annoyed lots of people. “We’ve had hard fights,” he says.
“Jack has always been more on the confrontation side and the tell-people-where-it’s-at side,” says Hess of Northwestern University.


Anyone in Chicago who’s involved in public policy on kids at risk of dropping out almost certainly has had to deal with Wuest.
Linda Lenz, publisher of the monthly magazine Catalyst: Voices of Chicago School Reform, is among those who’ve heard stories about politicians walking the other way when they see Wuest coming down the hall.

“Jack knows how to go after people, make connections, milk those connections,” she says. “He is a bulldog.”

Former DCFS Director Jess McDonald says he never ran the other way, but jokes, “If my office had been in a different location, I might have tried it myself when he showed up.

“Jack would come in to see me and say, ‘You need to do this, you need to think about this,’ ” he recalls, adding, almost fatalistically: “I was going to end up having to deal with him.”

Those conversations show how Wuest tapped nontraditional funding streams. Many dropouts and students on the edge are in foster care. McDonald says Wuest convinced him, over several months, that DCFS should fund the ASN’s Youth Skills Development and Training Program, which provides mentors to older foster youth.

Wuest does not, however, come off as the perpetually angry advocate. McDonald notes that Wuest’s sense of humor softened his edge. In meetings with advocates, “What you saw mostly was the passion and not the heat,” says Hess from Northwestern. “Whereas in meetings where you’re running up against bureaucrats, you would get the heat as well as the passion.”

That combination played a role in the achievement that distinguishes Chicago’s alternative schools system: a 1995 agreement by CPS to fund those schools.

Tapping School Funds

All those years of pressing city officials for more money for dropout services paid off in a fortuitous way in 1995, when city Budget Director Paul Vallas became CEO of the school system. Wuest says Vallas had long been supportive of his cause.
Sue Gamm, an education consultant and former chief officer for specialized services with CPS, recalls the initial meetings among Wuest, Vallas and other and CPS executives. Wuest was “very emotional,” she says. But “he had his facts and numbers at the top of his head. And he would bring together stories and numbers to present a very persuasive case.”

“He was passionate. He was sincere,” Vallas recalls.

Certainly, no one would confuse Wuest with someone who was in it for the money. Although Wuest trades his shorts for suits for business meetings, Vallas notes, “his wardrobe did not reflect that of an individual who was benefiting financially from these relationships.”

“Jack’s advocacy,” Gamm says, “clearly pushed Paul to create the program in the first place, and to increase seats” later.
The public school money – about $16.7 million this school year, CPS says – goes to the Youth Connection Charter School, an umbrella nonprofit that Wuest helped to create but is not a part of. Youth Connection funds the basic operations of its 23 member schools, all of which are high schools and most of which also belong to ASN. The Youth Connection schools are funded for 2,500 seats this year, says Executive Director Sheila Venson.

Youth Connection provides its member schools with core educational services, while ASN gives them after-school, summer and other supplemental programming.

Not everyone likes the CPS deal. Rod Estvan, a former Youth Connection board member, believes Vallas “sold Jack a bill of goods.” He points to the increase in expulsions from CPS in recent years: “It was a trap,” he says, giving the schools places to dump more unwanted students.

CPS expulsions rose from 171 in the 1996-97 school year to 668 the following year, and the number has stayed in that range ever since, according to figures provided by CPS.

The vast majority of those in the Youth Connection schools, however, did not get expelled, but dropped out, Wuest says. Hess credits the agreement with “reducing the number of kids who were just pushed out of the system without any recourse.”
Hess does see a downside to the arrangement. “The Alternative Schools Network is much more establishment-funded now,” he says. Although that “provides a lot more of a [financial] base for you to do things, … you can’t be as critical. You can’t be as forthright in lots of ways.”

Mixed Blessings

The government financing produces benefits and drawbacks.

The benefits are evident at Olive-Harvey Middle College, a high school where ASN funded a six-week computer program this summer that included Web design. ASN schools pay a $50 annual membership fee and collectively receive about $5 million worth of such programming, Wuest says.

One of the 15 students on hand one day, 18-year-old Justin Grayson, says he’s far more comfortable there than he was in his regular school, noting that “the atmosphere [is] so friendly.”

The atmosphere is so good that the former drop-out says, “I’m thinking about going into teaching.”

One likely reason for Grayson’s comfort: The charter schools are a fraction of the size of even the smallest regular public high schools in the city. “The only way to re-engage these kids is you have to have substantially smaller schools, not 400 to 500, but maybe 80 to 90 kids,” Wuest says. “It’s tougher for the kids to get lost in a school of 90.”

At another Youth Connection school – Prologue Alternative High School – Principal Pa Joof sees the CPS funding as a mixed blessing. “Instead of graduating 10 kids, I graduate 20. That’s a good thing,” he says. But that growth required a move to a larger building with higher rent, and “we are still not up to par in terms of paying teachers the way CPS does.”

For Youth Connection, ASN’s advocacy work helps to create a receptive atmosphere for the work done by its schools. “They raise the issues politically around effective programs for dropouts,” says Venson of Youth Connection, who is also a former education director for ASN. “It helps us to exist in this environment where programs for these kids are few and far between.”

Lingering Frustration

Wuest says he has mellowed over the years, but chalks that up to wisdom, not who pays his bills. He finds polite behind-the-scenes conversations to be more effective than public confrontations. “What I’ve learned is to lessen the confrontation unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he says. “I can get pretty frustrated, but I try to keep that to myself.”

The frustration still comes through clearly. “There are just tons of kids on the street,” Wuest says. He says CPS needs to “expand programs significantly” to accommodate 10,000 to 15,000 youth a year, not just 5,000. And “we need to get it [the dropout issue] up at the national level and the state level.”

When political leaders attend graduations at the alternative schools, Wuest tries getting them to think about the flip side of what they see, not just the feel-good stories of kids who made it.

“A kid says, ‘I never thought I could do this, and here I am. It’s unbelievable,’ ” Wuest says of the graduations. “Then the question is: If there are cuts in funding, who isn’t standing up there next year? Who’s on the street?

“The fact that these kids need this and can get it is great,” Wuest says. “The fact that there are so many other kids who need it and don’t get it is just a tragedy.”

Ed Finkel is a freelance journalist based in Evanston, Ill. Contact:

Jack Wuest, Executive Director
Alternative Schools Network
Chicago, Ill.
(773) 728-4030,
Sheila Venson, Executive Director
Youth Connection Charter School
Chicago, Ill.
(312) 328-0799

Mentors for Dropouts

The Alternative Schools Network (ASN) provides a raft of programs for its members. One that founder Jack Wuest talks about with particular pride is the Youth Skills Development Training Program, which he says brings him “full circle” to the early days of his career at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), because it focuses on older foster youth.

ASN provides the program to several alternative schools. Each student is assigned a full-time, paid mentor whose “job is to get the kid in school, keep him in school,” Wuest says.

Sheila Venson, executive director of Youth Connection Charter School, says the mentors give youth “a relationship with somebody in the school who is more or less functioning as an advocate and checking up on them and giving them that personal attention.”

Through a plan worked out with the mentors, each youth can earn $1,000 for an Individual Development Account scholarship fund to cover basic needs after they graduate from the alternative schools.

The youths can also gain credits at their own pace – which can mean an accelerated timetable from the usual semester-based system – through the online Extra Learning program. This subscription-based service, which is not unique to ASN, covers subjects ranging from English literature to advanced physics.

The training program started in 1999 and accounts for roughly half of ASN’s $8 million annual budget, ASN says. Much of the funding comes from the DCFS.

Wuest says ASN received $800,000 this year from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the state DCFS to take the next step: Staying with kids after they graduate to make sure they continue into college, job training or a job.

– Ed Finkel